12 November 2016

Camouflaging Clues

by B.K. Stevens

"The grandest game in the world"--that's how Edward D. Hoch describes the duel between mystery writer and mystery reader. In an essay called "The Pleasure of the Short Story," Hoch explains why he prefers mysteries "in which the reader is given a clue or hint well in advance of the ending. As a reader myself I find the greatest satisfaction in spotting the clue and anticipating the author. If I overlook it, I don't feel cheated--I admire the author's skill!"*

And it takes a lot of skill. In any mystery where this "grandest game" is played, the delightful challenge offered to readers poses daunting challenges for writers. We have to provide readers with clues "well in advance of the ending," as Hoch says. In my opinion (and I bet Hoch would agree), we should provide plenty of clues, and they should start as soon as possible. As a reader, I feel a tad frustrated by mysteries that hinge on a single clue--if we don't pick up on a quick reference indicating the killer was wearing gloves on a warm day, we have no chance of figuring things out. I also don't much enjoy mysteries that look like whodunits but are really just histories of investigations.
The detective questions A, who provides a scrap of information pointing to B, who suggests talking to C. Finally, somewhere around F, the detective happens upon the only truly relevant clue, which leads straight to a solution that's obvious now but would have been impossible to guess even three minutes sooner. That's not much fun.

But working in lots of clues throughout the mystery isn't easy. Hoch identifies "the great clue bugaboo" that plagues many detective stories: "Clues are inserted with such a heavy hand that they almost scream their presence at the reader." Especially in short stories, Hoch says, avoiding that bugaboo requires "a great deal of finesse." I think that's true not only in whodunits but also in mysteries that build suspense by hinting at endings alert readers have a fair chance of predicting before they reach the last page. Luckily, there are ways of camouflaging clues, of hiding them in plain sight so most readers will overlook them.

Here are five camouflage techniques--you've probably used some or all of them yourself. Since it wouldn't be polite to reveal other writers' clues, I'll illustrate the descriptions with examples from my own stories.That way, if I give away too much and spoil the stories, the only person who can get mad at me is me. (By some strange coincidence, all the stories I'll mention happen to be in my recent collection from Wildside Press, Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime.)

Sneak clues in before readers expect them: Readers expect the beginning of a mystery to intrigue them and provide crucial back story--or, perhaps, to plunge them into the middle of action. They don't necessarily expect to be slapped in the face with clues right away. So if we slide a clue into our opening sentences, it might go unnoticed. That's what I tried to do in "Aunt Jessica's Party," which first appeared in Woman's World in 1993. It's not a whodunit, but the protagonist's carrying out a scheme, and readers can spot it if they pay attention. Here's how the story begins:
     Carefully, Jessica polished her favorite sherry glass and placed it on the silver tray. Soon, her nephew would arrive. He was to be the only guest at her little party, and everything had to be perfect.
     Five minutes until six--time to call Grace. She went to the phone near the kitchen window, kept her eyes on the driveway, and dialed.
     "Hello, Grace?" she said. "Jessica. How are you? Oh, I'm fine--never better. Did I tell you William's coming today? Yes, it is an accomplishment to get him here. But it's his birthday, and I promised him a special present. He even agreed to pick up some sherry for me. Oh, there he is, pulling into the driveway." She paused. "Goodbye, Grace. You're a dear."
I count at least six facts relevant to the story's solution in these paragraphs; even Jessica's pause is significant. And there's one solid clue, an oddity that should make readers wonder. Jessica's planned the timing of this call ("time to call Grace"), but why call only five minutes before her nephew's scheduled to arrive? She can't be calling to chat--what other purpose might the call serve? I'm hoping that readers won't notice the strange timing, that they'll focus instead on hints about Jessica's relationship with her nephew and the "special present" she's giving him. I've played fair by providing a major clue. If readers aren't ready for it, it's not my fault.

Hide a clue in a series of insignificant details: If a detective searches a crime scene and finds an important clue--an oil-stained rag, say--we're obliged to tell readers. But if we don't want to call too much attention to the clue, we can hide it in a list of other things the detective finds, making sure some sound as intriguing as an oil-stained rag. I used this technique in "Death in Rehab," a whodunit published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in 2011. When temporary secretary Leah Abrams accepts a job at a rehab center, her husband, Sam, doesn't like the idea that she'll be "surrounded by addicts." Leah counters that being around recovering addicts will be inspirational, not dangerous, but Sam's not convinced:
"They're still addicts, and addicts do dangerous things. Did you read the local news this morning?" He found the right page and pointed to a headline. "'Gambling Addict Embezzles Millions, Disappears'--probably in Vegas by now, the paper says. Or this story--`Small-time Drug Dealer Killed Execution Style'--probably because he stole from his bosses, the paper says. Or this one--`Shooter Flies into Drunken Rage, Wounds Two'--the police haven't caught that one, either."
Savvy mystery readers may suspect one of these news stories will be relevant to the mystery, but they can't yet know which one (this is another early-in-the-story clue). In fact, I've tried to make the two irrelevant headlines sound more promising than the one that actually matters--and if you decide to read the story, that's a big extra hint for you. About halfway through the story, Sam mentions the three news stories again. By now, readers who have paid attention to all the clues provided during Leah's first day at work should have a good sense of which story is relevant. But I don't think most readers will figure out murderer and motive yet--and if they do, I don't much care. I've packed this story so full of clues that I doubt many readers will spot all of them. Even readers who realize whodunit should find some surprises at the end.

Separate clues from context: We're obliged to provide the reader with clues and also, I think, to provide the context needed to interpret them. But I don't think we're obliged to provide both at the same time. By putting a careful distance between clue and context, we can play fair and still keep the reader guessing. In "The Shopper," a whodunit first published in a 2014 convention anthology, a young librarian's house is burglarized while she's at home, asleep. That's unsettling enough, but her real worries begin when the burglar--a pro the police have nicknamed The Shopper--starts sending her notes and returning some things he stole. He seems obsessed with her. Also, two men she's never seen before--one blond, one dark--start showing up at the library every day. She suspects one of them might be The Shopper, but which one? (And who says you can't have a puzzling whodunit with only two suspects?) Then things get worse:
She didn't really feel like going out that night, but she and Lori had a long-standing date for dinner and a movie. It'd be embarrassing to admit she was scared to go out, and the company would do her good. But when she got to the restaurant, she spotted the blond man sitting in a booth, eating a slab of pie. He has a right to eat wherever he wants, she thought; but the minute Lori arrived, Diane grabbed her hand, pulled her to a table at the other end of the restaurant, and sighed with relief when the blond man left after a second cup of coffee.
     The relief didn't last long. As she and Lori walked out, she saw the dark man sitting at the counter, picking at a salad. He must have come in after she had--had he followed her? She couldn't stand it any more.
I'd say there are five major clues in this story. Two are contained--or, in one case, reinforced--in these paragraphs. A reader keeping careful track of all the evidence could identify The Shopper right now, without reading the remaining seven pages. But since these clues are revealing only in the context of information provided five pages earlier, I'm betting most readers won't make the connection. The Shopper's secrets are still safe with me.

Use the protagonist's point of view to mislead readers: This technique isn't reserved for mystery writers. In "Emma Considered as Detective Fiction," P.D. James comments on Jane Austen's skillful manipulation of point of view to conceal the mysteries at the heart of her novel. Emma constantly misinterprets what people do and say, and because we readers see things from Emma's perspective, we're equally oblivious to what's really going on. In our own mysteries, unless our protagonist is a genius who instantly understands everything, we can use the same technique: If our protagonist overlooks clues, chances are readers will overlook them, too. In "A Joy Forever" (AHMM, 2015), photographer Chris is visiting Uncle Mike and his second wife, Gwen. Uncle Mike is a tyrant who's reduced Gwen to the status of domestic slave--he orders her around, never helps her, casually insults her. Gwen takes it all without a murmur. After a dinner during which Uncle Mike behaves even more boorishly than usual, Chris follows Gwen to the kitchen to help with the dishes:
     As I watched her standing at the sink, sympathy overpowered me again. She was barely fifty but looked like an old woman--bent, scrawny, exhausted, her graying hair pulled back in a tight bun. And her drab, shapeless dress had to be at least a decade old.
     "You spend so much on Uncle Mike," I chided. "The golf cart, all that food and liquor. Spend something on yourself. Go to a beauty parlor and have your hair cut and styled. Buy yourself some new clothes."
     She laughed softly. "Oh, Mike really needs what I buy for him--he really, really does. And I don't care how my hair looks, and I don't need new clothes." Her smile hardened. "Not yet."
     I felt so moved, and so sorry, that I leaned over and kissed the top of her head. "You're too good to him."
Chris sees Gwen as a victim, as a woman whose spirit has been utterly crushed by an oppressor. Readers who don't see beyond Chris's perspective have some surprises coming. But in this story, by this point, I think most readers will see more than Chris does. They'll pick up on clues such as Gwen's hard smile, her quiet "not yet." I had fun playing with point of view in this story, with giving alert readers plenty of opportunities to stay one step ahead of the narrator. It's another variation on Hoch's "grandest game."

Distract readers with action or humor: If readers get caught up in an action scene, they may forget they're supposed to be watching for clues; if they're chuckling at a character's dilemma, they may not notice puzzle pieces slipping by. In "Table for None" (AHMM, 2008), apprentice private detective Harriet Russo is having a rough night. She's on a dark, isolated street, staking out a suspect. But he spots her, threatens her, and stalks off. Moments later, her client, Little Dave, pops up unexpectedly and proposes searching the suspect's car. Harriet says it's too dangerous, but Little Dave won't listen:
He raced off. For a moment, I stood frozen. Call Miss Woodhouse and tell her how I'd botched things--let Little Dave get himself killed and feel guilty for the rest of my life--follow him into the parking lot and risk getting killed myself. On the whole, the last option seemed most attractive. I raced after Little Dave.
     He stood next to the dirty white car, hissing into his cell phone. "Damn it, Terry," he whispered harshly, "I told you not to call me. No, I won't tell you where I am. Just go home. I'll see ya when I see ya." He snapped his phone shut and yanked on a back door of the car. It didn't budge. He looked straight at me, grinning sheepishly.
     That's pretty much the last thing I remember. I have some vague impression of something crashing down against me, of sharp pain and sudden darkness. But my next definite memory is of fading slowly back into consciousness--of hearing sirens blare, of feeling the cement against my back, of seeing Little Dave sprawled a few feet away from me, of spotting a small iron figurine next to him, of falling into darkness again.
I hope readers will focus on the conflict and confusion in this scene, and on the unseen attack that leaves Harriet in bad shape and Little Dave in worse shape. I hope they won't pause to take careful note of exactly what Little Dave says in his phone conversation, to test it against the way he's behaved earlier and the things people say later. If readers are too focused on the action to pick up on inconsistencies, they'll miss evidence that could help them identify the murderer.

We can also distract readers with clever dialogue, with fascinating characters, with penetrating social satire, with absorbing themes, with keen insights into human nature. In the end, excellent writing is the best way to keep readers from focusing only on the clues we parade past them. Of course, that's not our main reason for trying to make our writing excellent. To use Hoch's phrase again, mysteries invite writers and readers to participate in "the grandest game," but that doesn't mean mysteries are no more than a game. I think mysteries can be as compelling and significant as other kinds of fiction. The grandest game doesn't impose limits on what our stories and novels can achieve. It simply adds another element that I and millions of other readers happen to enjoy.

Do you have favorite ways of camouflaging clues? I'd love to see some examples from your own mysteries. (*Hoch's essay, by the way, is in the Mystery Writers of America Mystery Writer's Handbook, edited by Lawrence Treat, published in 1976, revised and reprinted several times since then. Used copies are available through Amazon.)


  1. Terrific post, Bonnie! I was actually giving a talk last weekend at the North Carolina Writers' Network's Fall Conference and I used both the Ed Hoch essay you quote here AND one of YOUR stories to talk about laying clues--though not anywhere with the precision you talk about it. I particularly like your categorizing these different ways and offering examples. Good stuff. I learned a lot!

  2. A good piece with terrific examples.
    I was interested that P.D. James was an Austen fan. I have always thought of Austen as a master of suspense, matrimonial, admittedly, but suspense nonetheless.

  3. Great points, BK. Love your examples as well. And I definitely think that mysteries and crime fiction can be as compelling and as significant as other kinds of fiction. It's what the author brings to the story and how they layer it. The mystery is just another element that can add some fun. But often, to me, the most interesting parts are the characters and their motivations, even the settings, and the mystery is really secondary. Just something to keep the plot moving though, as I say, that can be a lot of fun in itself.

  4. Thanks, Art. I love Hoch's essay. And I'm glad (and flattered) that you were able to use a story of mine in your talk.

    Janice, P.D. James does seem to have been quite an Austen fan.In her essay on EMMA, she says, "I think if Jane Austen were writing today, she might very well be our greatest mystery novelist." She also wrote a mystery sequel to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, called DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY. I haven't read it--I'm more than a little uncomfortable with the current trend of contemporary authors writing sequels to classic novels.

    Paul, I agree that the puzzle often isn't the most interesting or important element in a mystery. Works of crime fiction don't have to be whodunits at all. But if we do choose to play Hoch's "grandest game," I think we should take it seriously and do our best to play it well.

  5. Bonnie,

    This is such a wonderfully helpful article for mystery writers and readers. I also appreciate your examples.

  6. Thank you for spelling these techniques out so clearly. Amazing job!

  7. This is a great, very instructive article. The examples are excellent lessons. Thank you!

  8. Bonnie, thank you so much for the excellent article. I'm saving a copy of it to read whenever I hit a rough spot.

  9. Jacquie, Susan, Larry, and Elizabeth, thank you so much for your kind words. I'm delighted that you found the post helpful. It was a lot of fun to write.

  10. Wonderful post! So glad to have found this blog and a way to connect with your work, Bonnie. I've read your stories in magazines and am eager to read your collection, especially since you've used your own work as examples here. So often I read "what to do" articles without any helpful "how to do it" guidelines -- your willingness to show us the "how" makes this especially valuable. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  11. Since this is a post about whodunits, it seems appropriate to note the passing of Robert Vaughn, who played a suspect in "Last Salute to the Commodore"(1976), the only (as far as I know)COLUMBO episode that took the form of a whodunit. (The episode was directed by Patrick McGoohan, who starred in several COLUMBO episodes and also in SECRET AGENT and THE PRISONER--not exactly mysteries, but I bet I'm not the only mystery fan who loved them.) Vaughn also starred in a 1975 COLUMBO episode, "Troubled Waters." (That one also featured Patrick Macnee of THE AVENGERS). Mark Dawidziak, author of THE COLUMBO PHILE, listed Jack Cassidy, Robert Culp, and Robert Vaughn as "the quintessential COLUMBO murderers"--elegant, confident, and cool. (I'd add Patrick McGoohan to that list.) And of course Vaughn was also a star of THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.--not to mention all those Marks & Harrison commercials. Whether he was doing evil or bringing evildoers to justice, Robert Vaughn was a beloved part of the mystery world.

  12. Alearning, thank you for your comment. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. I share your frustration with "how-to" articles that state goals but don't say much about how to reach them--I'm glad you don't think my post fits that description! If you'd ever like to chat, you can write to me through my website, http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com. I'd love to hear from you!

  13. This is a terrific article. Dale Andrews made a great suggestion ("Untenable") to me about a dying declaration that sounded artificial… Make it artificial! It worked wonderfully.

  14. What an interesting post! Thank you for pointing out all these methods, and for your excellent examples (none of which tipped me off to anything!). At a recent conference an editor was bemoaning the fact that he sees mostly thriller/suspense stories, and not good old-fashioned "mysteries with clues." I think that may be partly because, though you described clue obfuscation so clearly, it's actually hard to do well. A current pet peeve of mine are stories written in first person where the narrator doesn't see the elephant in the room. Makes me feel I'm dragging the narrator along through the plot!

  15. Thanks for the excellent post! You give so many detailed examples of planting clues and distracting the reader.

  16. Bonnie, this is a great (and extremely helpful) column. One to save and refer to again and again. Love the examples.

  17. A great post, Bonnie!
    I think the best example from my own stories is in "No Fences" (AHMM, Dec. 2011), where the entire focus for the first half of the story is on librarian Janet's inappropriate relationship with her neighbor's son, Cody, which is threatened by Cody's high school girlfriend Kim; so much so that most people (I hope and believe) ignore that at least 3 deaths have occurred in Cody's house. So, when the sheriff calls Janet into his office:

    "Janet was only surprised that it had taken him this long. She knew that Laskin gossip had been hard at work. Various definitions of Janet’s relationship with Cody. Janet’s hostility to Kim. The mystery of what Cody and Kim had argued about. Someone would have mentioned that Kim had tried to talk to Janet down by the library two days before she died.
    “Was Kim pregnant?” she asked.
    It was impossible to tell whether the emphasis was on the first or the last word. “Did you think she was?”
    “I didn’t know anything about it,” Janet said. “I was too busy trying to get to the bank to talk to her. I wish I had now. Maybe…” Janet shook her head. “I just can’t believe Cody did it.”
    “Mm. You’ve been living next to Willa for how long?”
    “Almost ten years.”
    “How close are she and Cody?”
    “They’re mother and son,” Janet began, but the look in Hanson’s eyes made her stop. “Not very. For various reasons, Cody’s spent more time with me over the last four years.”
    He nodded. “That may be for the best.” He straightened out a paperclip, and threw it down on the desk. In a formal, almost sing-song tone, he said, “Thanks to information we received, and subsequent investigation, Willa Heppler Neilson was arrested this morning in Sioux Falls.”


  18. Bonnie, it's obvious you spent a lot of time putting this excellent piece together. Very well done and very much appreciated.

  19. Thanks for your comments, all--sorry I've fallen behind on responding. That's an interesting example, Leigh. Sometimes, we find surprising solutions to problems. Vicki, I've also heard an editor complain about the scarcity of whodunits. I've written both whodunits and suspense stories, and the whodunits always take a lot longer to plot--coming up with clues can take longer than doing the actual writing. June and John, I'm glad (and flattered) that you found the post helpful and enjoyed the examples. Janice, that's a wonderful example. Focusing readers' attention on the wrong suspect and the wrong possible motive can be a very effective way of distracting them from all the clues pointing in the right direction.

  20. Thanks for the wonderful examples, Bonnie. Leaving the tracks (clues) for the cat to follow is an art and not the easiest to master.

  21. Wonderful post, Bonnie. I love learning from a master of the form. As to the mystery in Austen, I contend that any good story in any genre has to have an element of mystery to give it suspense and tension. Thanks!

  22. I like the last one, Bonnie. I've used misdirection myself, where the clue or lead is so glaringly obvious you have to bury it in minutiae, or do an entire irrelevant scene (that has to appear somehow relevant) just to slip in that one piece of information.

  23. Bonnie, I missed your earlier comment about Robert Vaughn. UNCLE was a favorite (especially David McCallum). Vaughn did a sci-fi version of The Seven Samurai called Battle Beyond the Stars, which was surprisingly well received, partly due to the special effects of James Cameron. Of course Vaughn also starred in The Magnificent Seven.

    But my favorite part was your mention of Patrick McGoohan and The Prisoner, possibly the most imaginative television drama ever!

  24. I've fallen behind on responding to comments again. (I was downstairs doing some pre-Thanksgiving baking and freezing). Earl, it did take some time, but I enjoyed the chance to look back. John, I do think planting clues is an art--I always worry about whether I'm spoiling the fun by being too obvious, or spoiling the fun by not really giving the reader a fair chance. Kaye, I think you're right, too. I'd have a hard time thinking of any excellent work of fiction or drama that doesn't challenge readers to analyze clues of some sort, whether that means keeping track of alibis or interpreting characters' motivations to gain insights into what they're likely to do next. David, you make an excellent point, and I think it sheds light on why writing a short story that's a true whodunit is especially challenging: When you have to watch the word count, it's more difficult to bury clues in irrelevant details or scenes. Leigh, I love Robert Vaughan in The Magnificent Seven, but I hadn't known about Battle Beyond the Stars. I just added it to my Netflix queue. (Unfortunately, it went into the limbo called "Saved--Availability Unknown," so I'm not holding my breath.)

  25. As a consumer, I ask two things.
    1) There should be more than one clue, especially in novels.
    2) They should be truly meaningful and not opinion based.

    In other words, Prof. Pudd shouldn't conclude Amy poisoned Betty because Amy's psychological profile deemed her the only possible perp. Hard facts are much more useful.

  26. Eve, I think your standards are utterly reasonable, and you make a good point about the length of the story/novel and the number of clues. I think a novel should provide lots of clues, and even in flash fiction I like to provide at least two--at least one the reader will probably spot (readers enjoy spotting clues) and at least one the reader will probably miss (readers also enjoy being surprised--at least, when I'm reading a mystery, that's how I feel).

  27. When I wrote the above, I couldn't think of an example, but there was one in which the clue was the shy kid in class hadn't signed the cheerleader's yearbook, thereby showing his latent hostility, yada yada. That insight overrode the other clues, but I didn't feel that was a clue at all. Was he absent from school that day? Was he too shy? Did the cheerleader even ask him?

  28. Eve, I see what you mean. That sort of "clue" wouldn't be of much use in court, and I don't think it should be the decisive clue in a mystery, either.

  29. Well done, Bonnie! Ed Hoch essay is a classic. I love that you provided examples so that we could see exactly what you were referring to. And now I'm dying to read a few of these short stories! :-) -Sati


  30. Thanks, Sati! I first read the Hoch essay many, many years ago, and it definitely influenced both the way I read mysteries and the way I try to write them. I'm glad you enjoyed the examples.

  31. A marvelous take on my genre of choice. In one of my novels, Hedge Bet, I knew who the killer was from the start and I let the reader pretty well figure it out too, then I killed the killer off... That made the game really get started especially when my detective had to go back and see what she missed.

  32. Whodunits are my genre of choice, too, Gayle. And it sounds as if you found an interesting way to give the plot an extra twist by having both detective and readers make the same mistakes.


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